Saturday, June 28, 2008
So I'm having a bad night. Not a very scary someone-needs-to-save-me-from-myself bad night, but a life-kinda-sucks-and-it's-getting-to-me-more-than-it-should-and-I-don't-like-where-this-might-be-going kind of bad night. Not really a big deal, but annoying.
But here's the thing. For a large part of my life--the better part of four years in fact--I turned to religion on nights like these, or at least the trappings of religion. The thing that always helped and hypnotized me about religious ritual was music, and long after I ceased to be a 100% committed Christian, on a bad night I would turn to worship songs for comfort. The powerful feeling of music coming from my lungs and my lips felt reassuring--life affirming or something. I knew the words by of the worship songs by heart, much of the music is beautiful, and they have deep emotional memories attached to them. Sounds like no downside, right?
The problem is, on nights like these, the desire to sing is still there, which is great, because it gets me out of my head and soothes me. But the worship songs still come to mind, though I no longer even pretend to believe what they say. And the problem with this is not just that they are religious songs--I'm perfectly capable of appreciating and accepting the beauty of something that generally praises god or the beauty of creation or whatever. But some of the songs that come to mind are not just pretty happy light-hearted praise songs. Many of them are like this one:
Jesus Christ I think upon your sacrifice
You became nothing poured out to death
Many times I've wondered at Your gift of life
And I'm in that place once again
I'm in that place once again
Once again I look upon the cross where You died
I'm humbled by Your mercy and I'm broken inside
Once again I thank You
Once again I pour out my life
Now you are exalted to the highest place
King of heavens, where one day I'll bow
But for now I marvel at this saving grace
And I'm full of praise once again
And I'm full of praise once again
Once again I look upon the cross where You died
I'm humbled by Your mercy and I'm broken inside
Once again I thank You
Once again I pour out my life
Thank You for the cross
Thank You for the cross
Thank You for the cross
The Passion-of-The-Christ, revel-in-suffering-and-sacrifice phenomenon is one of my worst memories from my religious days and represents one of the most damaging ideas in Christianity.
I remember sitting in a movie theater with my church group absolutely numb from the horror of that movie, unable to even express emotion because I was so overwhelmed and because the sobs couldn't break through the pressing weight on my chest, while two of my best friends sobbed on either side of me, leaning on my shoulder or holding my hand.
And because of that understanding-christ's-suffering-makes-you-better culture, we all claimed to love that horrifically painful experience. That is twisted, and wrong, and fosters self-hatred. It's self destructiveness/self punishment akin to the awful depressed/angsty teenage habit of cutting oneself, and encouraging it is disgusting.
"Humbling"? I suppose you could call it that. But I'd rather call it what it is--abuse, whether self inflicted or perpetrated by a parent, pastor, or youth leader. "Yes," they are telling you, or you are telling yourself, "Yes you are a horrible person, a broken sinner, and you must feel this deeply in your soul so that you can understand the wonder of Christ's sacrifice for you." The classic create-the-need-you-intend-to-address trick that religion uses so very well.
The explicit glorification of this mentality present in "Once Again" makes it one of the worst worship songs I've ever sung in terms of conceptual content. Of course, many worship songs use this same theme--I could do an entire series of posts on lines from "beautiful" religious songs that bug the hell out of me--but this song doesn't just say "you saved me" or "you sacrificed for me," it encourages active reflection on the actual violent death of Christ. (Once again I look upon the cross where you died? Thank you for the cross? How very morbid.) I'm sure there are plenty others this bad, and others perhaps worse, but this is the one that comes to mind most readily for me.
And the horrible thing is... this song still pops into my head.
It comes to me when I'm feeling "broken," and some small but deep part of me still wants to find it touching and beautiful.
I do not believe in god, or in the whole hating-yourself-because-you're-so-imperfect-is-good-for-you/motivates-you-to-change thing (this self-punishing mindset exists in some secular philosophies as well and I don't like it there either), so the concepts shouldn't really "hurt" me... but I don't want to sing this song. I don't want to think it, or even know it. The fact that I once loved this song, once sang it in search of comfort and understanding from god, makes me hurt and angry.
But I can't get rid of it, just like I can't get rid of the dead baby pictures or the skit I saw that blamed a desire to kill oneself on immoral acts/dancing with the devil instead of with jesus (instead of on, you know, um, depression).
And in a way, of course, I wouldn't want to, because they're part of my past and my history and my experience and ME and blah-de-blah-de-blah.
But I wish I could break the emotional potency of the song enough so that it wouldn't come to mind on shitty nights when I want to sing. Give me joyful songs, even religious ones if they're relatively innocuous, give me ordinary sad songs, but take away this perverse praising-of-brokenness.
I don't want to ever be back to this shitty-night place "once again," but I know it will happen from time to time. And when it does, the goal is to get the fuck out of it as quickly as possible, not to sit around and praise Jesus for my lovely broken soul.
Monday, June 23, 2008
So in part one, I ended my story by telling you about how wonderful my life was after my first retreat. I bet you can already guess where I’m going with this: It didn’t last.
The end of retreat was the beginning of an ever-deepening involvement in the rather twisted world of my youth group. Our young, charismatic, and oh-so-concerned about the state of our souls youth minister was a master of indoctrination. The loving-God-who-changed-lives-and-cared-for-us-part was over and now it was time to get us addicted to a more potent kind of Catholic Guilt than we had previously been accustomed to. We were coming to “Life Nights” (the group was called LifeTeen) on the evils of Abortion, Suicide, Sex… etc, in which the horrors of these things were described in graphic detail (in the case of abortion, an hour long slide show of actual graphics was involved), and worse, we were claiming to enjoy them.
During this period I voluntarily went to church multiple times per week and even was taken once by my youth minister and a friend’s mother to stand outside abortion clinics to
help harass people walking in. I’m still intensely ashamed of that, both because it was horrible and because I never even felt that what I was doing was right, but I let myself get sucked in anyways. Thankfully, my mother was horrified at this and prevented it from happening again.
Between the fact that retreat highs don’t last, the crazy guilt, and the questions that, try as I might, I could not banish from my mind, I started to get very, very uncomfortable with this whole religion thing. But I was trapped. This had become a such a big part of my life–I was Catholic and this was my home, my community. And it was so horrible to be ungrateful or doubting when God had fixed my life… so I doubled my efforts. I read my bible every night, cherry picking the inspirational bits to post in my room and give to my friends, and started praying the rosary. I went to extra sessions of Eucharistic adoration, trying to replicate the intensity of emotion in that first experience. These were acts of desperation, because I felt that if I lost faith, I would lose my new happy life.
Stressful events at home and at school accompanied my period of doubt, and one thing led to another… just a few months after the retreat another round of depression hit me, hard. I still wasn’t calling it that, though somewhere in the back of my mind, the word occurred to me. I told myself that I was weak, that I needed another retreat to get back to my faith and make me strong again. I literally counted down the days.
At my second retreat, absolutely nothing happened. I prayed constantly, I was brutal to myself in confession, but there was absolutely no relief. Nothing. Sunday afternoon as we boarded the bus to go back, I felt like being a five-year-old and refusing to leave. I wasn’t finished yet, I needed more time—I knew no way to dig myself out of this mess but to have God save me.
But I boarded the bus and spent the ride home mulling over God’s obvious rejection of me. If God wasn’t willing to help me, than I must be a complete failure, right? But after a second retreat like that one, I stopped feeling quite so guilty and started getting pissed. I was being the perfect little Catholic, and all I was asking was for God to let me be happy. I didn’t want money or good grades or any other form of help, I just wanted to want to get up in the morning.
As I got angrier, I started taking a step back from my circle at church, and I saw things that horrified me.
Our youth minister Meghan played favorites, and her captivating charm was so addictive that those who fell out of her favor (never for any reason other than the fact that someone else was more interesting) were often absolutely destroyed by it. Our group involved at least as much Meghan worship as God worship, and Meghan was very human and very manipulative, sometimes even cruel.
But beyond Meghan, I saw people with real problems in their lives being told that giving it up to God was all that they needed to fix things, when what they needed desperately was someone to get them real help. I saw people who had genuine questions being told to just wait, and they would get through their “dry spell” of faith.
I wish I could say that as soon as I saw all of this, I turned around and walked away. In reality it took me another two years to extricate myself completely from that world, even with a move to a boarding school to pull me away from my home parish. First I went to a new, less harsh Catholic church, then moved into non-denominational Christian wishy-washy-ness, trying to convince myself that it was manipulative behavior and dogma that bothered me. Every step away was full of guilt and there were things that went against church doctrine that I couldn't say or do long after I had decided that logically and morally they were okay, simply because the guilt was imbedded so deep that I would get intensely anxious when considering breaking one of the big rules. (To be fair, I was and to some degree still am a very anxious person, and irrational guilt is something I struggle with even outside of the religious sphere--religion just intensified this tendency.)
But my old objections to the very basic principles of my religion–why is Faith considered a virtue, why do we venerate unnecessary sacrifice, how do we know that we are right about any of this, and how can you base your life on something you can’t prove–grew stronger, and I eventually stopped attending religious services of any kind.
I was functionally an atheist for more than half of my senior year of high school, but the word bothered me. I had never understood how someone could define themselves by something they didn’t believe in, and I was uncomfortable completely destroying part of my identity, even though by this time it was my least favorite part. So I didn’t bother thinking about it, operating under the assumption that God might be there, but it really didn’t matter very much.
But soon after I got to college I made a new friend and when he asked me what my religious beliefs were, I honestly couldn’t tell him. This bothered me, and for the next few months I read about different religions and about the big scary word: Atheism. At first, this was tremendously difficult. Throwing away the remaining traces of my guilt was painful. But I realized that being an atheist made more sense to me than anything else, and I tried the word on for size. In doing this, I finally gave myself permission to stop trying to believe. I was incredibly relieved.
For the first time in my life what I claimed to believe in actually made sense to me, and though it was new, it never felt strange. I felt (and I still feel) that this is what I’ve been trying to believe my whole life–it feels natural for me.
The only people who don’t know about my lack of religion are my family members. My younger brother once said in anger that he didn’t believe in God. He later took it back, but at the time my mother shoved him against the wall and yelled at him for hours. Everyone’s least favorite uncle is the only other atheist in my family, and we all shake our heads at his kids being raised without religion. My grandmother would be genuinely heartbroken if she found out that I had “lost my way.” My family tends to make the common assumption most atheists actually believe in god, they just aren’t strong enough to keep faith through dry spells, or they’re angry about an experience they had with the church.
And I am angry. I’m very angry that at a very difficult point in my life the people that I mistakenly turned to for help were shoving church propaganda down my throat and showing me slide shows of dead babies. I’m angry about the fact that me and several of my friends wasted much of high school struggling to cut ourselves away from an emotionally abusive group of people and a culture that encouraged people to hate themselves, think they were unworthy sinners, and then beg for forgiveness. I am very angry that I let myself be manipulated into believing that my depression was punishment for lack of faith, and angry that I let my religious issues keep me from getting real help for so long. I am angry about many destructive effects of religious belief that are much, much bigger than my own experience. I am angry about enough things to fill an entire post.
But that’s not why I’m an atheist.
I’m an atheist because it makes sense to me.
I’m an atheist because I’m a scientist, because I love the ability to attempt to understand the world without viewing it through the distorted lenses of 2000+ year old doctrine. Religion can teach us a lot about the human mind and human history, but is at best incomplete and at worst damaging in its attempts to construct a guide to morality.
I’m an atheist because I don’t believe that theistic religions arise in almost every culture because of some nonsense about a “god-shaped-hole” in everybody’s heart. I believe religions arise from quirks of the human mind, a desire to make sense of the world, and a fear of death.
I am an atheist because it is much better to take responsibility for your own life and morals than to look forever towards an empty sky.
This all makes me happy, and I am completely comfortable with my beliefs, something I was never able to say before.
I hope that someday I can explain to my family, or at least my siblings, what I believe, but my family is complicated and I’d settle for an acceptance of the fact that I do not want to attend or get married in a Catholic church. But aside from that small snag, my religion story is over.
And that makes me very, very happy.
I grew up Catholic, but in the beginning, it wasn’t as bad as many people make it out to be. My family isn’t particularly conservative or religious, and my church was, unlike older Catholic churches, a bright and sunny place where we spent Sunday mornings listening to fairly short readings and sermons before singing pretty songs and being given cookies and juice or hot chocolate by the nice guy in the lobby.
My priest was a kind old man who knew my name, told jokes in his homily that were actually funny, and was an ex-alcoholic (which meant grape juice instead of wine, score!) who was very aware of the difficulties of making the rules and ideals of the church mesh with the real world. Notably, he made it very clear that in our parish anyone was welcome at the communion table, including people who had had abortions, gays, etc–pretty much anyone that old-school Catholics would look down their nose at. Gradually all the grumbly old people left our parish for more conservative parishes, and we were left with mostly people who nodded approvingly at our priest expressing opinions that got him called to speak with the big-shots in the diocese on more than one occasion.
Even Sunday school, known as CCD to Catholics, wasn’t that bad. Yes, there were painfully stupid worksheets where we filled-in-the-blanks in the ten commandments, but it could have been worse. We mostly learned lists and rules and there was minimal discussion time for me to ask difficult questions. At least, that was how it was in elementary school.
In middle-school-age CCD, they start ramping up for Confirmation, the sacrament usually received in 8th, 9th, or 10th grade, depending on the policies of your diocese, in which you become an adult in the church and become responsible for your own beliefs by officially and ceremoniously professing them. CCD was refered to as Youth Group, supposedly a fun relaxed place where we hung out with friends on cushions on the floor in the church lobby and talked about how awesome God is. And mostly, that is what we did.
But I’d always had questions, the biggest one of which was about the notion of sacrifice. God made the world, which means he made the rules. Why did he put it in the rules that in order for people to go to heaven, someone had to die for their mistakes? I was about seven the first time I reasoned this out, and I’d been suppressing this obviously blasphemous thought since then, thinking that maybe when I was older I would get it. But I was older, and learning more about the church just made me ask more questions. On the surface, I seemed like a good little kid–I memorized things easily and could tell you exactly what I was supposed to believe. But I had always had a hard time believing it, and I was starting to realize that the middle school Sunday school teachers didn’t have any better answers than anyone else I’d ever talked to. This was seriously disconcerting.
Had things gone on this way, I probably would have slowly fallen away from my faith. I almost certainly would have been confirmed, but I would have gradually pulled away because it is immensely important to me that the world make sense, and religion just simply didn’t. It would have been an uncomfortable transition, as God’s existence was an assumption I had always lived with, but it wouldn’t have been too horribly painful. At the time, my Catholicism was a relatively small part of my identity.
But unfortunately, that wasn’t how things went. During my freshman year of high school, my family moved half way across the country. The move triggered my first major episode of depression. It started out as anger about the move and frustration with how isolated I felt, but it just... spiraled downward, and somehow I ended up entirely broken and an entirely different person.
I didn’t call this depression at the time–I honestly believed that the world was hopeless, that I would never fit in, and that I was just biding my time until I got to die. I considered suicide for one horrible week, but came to the conclusion that suicide was selfish when I knew how many people I would hurt. That didn't really feel like relief to me though, or something to live for-- it just felt like a trap.
I wish I could joke about this, because now it sounds so angsty and over dramatic, but at the time it was very, very real.
What finally saved me from myself, I’m ashamed to admit, was religion. Despited the fact that our new parish was scarily large and conservative, the music was familiar and the youth group welcoming. That wasn’t much of a relief, but it was enough that I didn’t fight my parents about going, and I slowly got drawn in. Breaking out of my depression, however, was not gradual. In just a single weekend retreat(my first one), my entire world changed.
We had all the necessary ingredients for a cult on that first retreat. Our youth minister was young, charismatic, and had a nice tragic little backstory about how she was a miserable person before she “found” God (because, you know, he was missing). Also, like any good cult leader, she was a complete hypocrite, but I had yet to realize that at the time. The audience was largely young, insecure, and vulnerable for one reason or another. The older kids who were there were only in the youth group because it was a refuge from their screwed up lives. The freshmen were mostly pushed to go by parents, but we were the newbies, and many of us were loners with no friends in the youth group.
The setting was simple, but the entire weekend was heavily draped in ceremony. We were exposed to old and strange rituals of the Catholic Church that most average Catholics don’t bother with or even know about–Eucharistic Adoration (literally kneeling down and praying to the communion cracker enshrined in a golden sun-shaped holder), being prayed over, and speaking in tongues. We were given elaborate promises about how taking God into our hearts would transform us and transform our lives. We were told that if we only asked, God could take care of all our needs, heal all our wounds. God was to be the father to those of us who lacked a decent one of our own, a best friend to the lonely, and someone reliable to those of us whose lives were in a constant state of chaos.
A few months before the move, I would have probably found most of this unbearably ridiculous. Our old parish had dispatched with most of the kookier rituals of the church in favor of more concrete and realistic approaches to faith–all of this was entirely foreign to me. But I was a disaster of insecurities and self-hatred, deep in a hole that my naturally logical and pragmatic mind had been useless in dragging me out of. So I concentrated on the beautiful and familiar worship music that the entire retreat was awash in and beat down any remaining doubts. This felt like my last hope. I’m ashamed that I was so easily manipulated, but I’m not particularly surprised. These people were pros.
I know that “religious experiences” are real because that retreat did something to me that abruptly snapped me out of the mental disaster I’d been drowning in for so long. At the time, I interpreted what happened to me as some kind of gift from god, but it was a lot more mundane then that. In a crowd of True Believers, with enough ritual, with enough desperation for hope, you can trick your mind into doing some crazy things. On the night of the Big Event of the retreat, as Eucharistic adoration was coupled with being prayed over while worship music played and our youth minister babbled in tongues, something in me snapped.
It was a moment when I was supposed to be “giving up my burdens to God.” I was actually frantically praying “God, please fix me. I’ll do anything. And if you can’t fix me, please, just let me die. I can’t do this anymore. Please.” All night my heartbeat had been getting louder and faster, and I felt lightheaded and weak, but suddenly I felt like I couldn’t stand anymore. And then I was sitting down, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably, overcome by a sudden rush of emotion and relief. Absurd as it sounds, a weight was lifted from my shoulders, and I felt free.
I was euphoric, but also quite physically overwhelmed. I cried for nearly an hour, and shook for nearly two. I had palpitations constantly for the rest of the weekend, and they continued to surface intermittently when I prayed, thought about retreat, or listened to worship music, for weeks. Frankly, palpitations aren’t fun, as anyone who has experienced them as part of a panic attack can tell you, but I associated them with the notion of being “overcome by the holy spirit,” and thus took them as some kind of a sign.
The feeling of euphoria persisted for weeks, though it did fade with time. In my youth group, they referred to it as a Retreat High, and I don’t think there is any more appropriate name. I was incredibly energetic and productive, and every moment I was intensely aware of how happy I was.
Retreats and many other religious events/rituals are specifically engineered to produce this kind of emotional response. God isn’t real, but that doesn’t mean that religions don’t have access to powerful tools. They’ve been converting people for a long time, and profound emotional experiences are the quickest way to get someone hooked. That doesn’t mean that everyone involved in such indoctrination tactics intends to be manipulative. Most of the adult leaders on my retreat were True Believers who really believed that we were all opening our hearts to god. Unfortunately, their good intentions do little to prevent/repair the damage that can be done by such powerful emotional manipulation.
The retreat changed everything. I had energy and hope enough to really start connecting with friends, especially with one of my friends from retreat by my side. Life got good, and I started accepting and almost liking the fact that this strange new town was my home. For a few months, life was wonderful.
Continued in part two... I know it's long, but please read on